When the Toronto Maple Leafs’ captain slowly got to his knees, there was a split second of hope that he might be okay. That moment disappeared as John Tavares fell backwards into the trainer’s arms, wholly dazed with a bloody face. The television broadcast cut to the Maple Leafs’ box to prevent viewers from seeing the disturbing scene. Kyle Dubas was visibly alarmed, anxiously pounding his hand on the table and yelling. The cameras then cut to the bench, where the same panic had overtaken the players as many skated out to the captain. Everyone just wanted to help but were equally helpless. These are the images that will stick with Leafs’ fans for a long time after a Game 1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens.
Watching the broadcast and listening to the radio, the silence of the empty arena was deafening. Sheldon Keefe described the scene, “to be honest, it was difficult. I’ve experienced a lot of different things, a lot of tough injuries and stuff like that in my time as a player and as a coach. In an empty building like that, it was probably the most uncomfortable situation that I’ve been a part of on the ice. It was really tough to get through. Our players were rattled and concerned.”
In the interviews after the game, similar words were used to describe the incident from both locker rooms. Quotes like “scary situation” and “make you stick to your stomach” were repeated. But what was also talked about was Tavares as the person, not just the player. He is a father of two; his youngest is just over five months old. “So many bigger things than hockey,” said Mitch Marner. “He’s got a family, he’s got kids.”
King Clancy Memorial Trophy Candidate
Just a few days ago, he was nominated for the King Clancy Memorial Trophy. This trophy goes to “the player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution in his community.” Over the past year, the Leafs’ captain started the John Tavares Foundation. The JTF mission is to “help kids everywhere understand the importance of proper nutrition and embrace healthy lifestyle options.
The Habs Twitter account sent best wishes to Tavares as did Carey Price. The Montreal goalie who just won the game addressed the injury first in his post-game interview. “It’s pretty disheartening to see that happen to such a good guy. It’s a sobering reminder about, you know, hockey is just a game.”
Put the Team First
The 30-year-old had taken a major step in his career over the past season. Tavares revealed a conversation with his head coach that lead to his evolution as a player. Keefe had challenged Tavares to lead by example and become a 200-foot player. He averaged just under a point a game since coming to Toronto. But Tavares said he looked at the elite scoring on the team and knew he needed to change his game to help the team succeed.
It’s that team-first mentality that Nick Foligno must have realized right away. He was traded to Toronto just over five weeks ago but already refers to Tavares as family. “It’s horrible. Life comes into play at that point,” said Foligno. “You know, just seeing how he was in pain, it made you sick to your stomach. You think about him as a family man too. The game takes a back seat.” When play resumed, Foligno fought Corey Perry, the Canadiens player who unintentionally hit Tavares in the face with his knee.
Perry has played on several international teams with Tavares over the past decade, including winning a gold medal together at the 2014 Olympics. He was thinking of him after the game. “I know Johnny pretty well; I just hope he is okay,” said Perry. “I honestly felt sick to my stomach when I saw it. And I saw him and the way he is; you know it is a scary situation, I will reach out to him and talk to him, and hopefully, he is okay.”
Five interviews from two opposing teams – yet all the words sound similar. Tavares is widely respected around the League. He has been a significant contributor to the Maple Leafs on and off the ice. Now it seems his contributions will only be off the ice for the foreseeable future.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.